The last time I wrote a column for Third Sector, we were at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. It seems like a lifetime ago, and how quickly things had to change!
Within days I was helping my team of associates one-to-one as they learned to work remotely. Not meeting face-to-face presented particular challenges for them, because they all had different disabilities and needed individual adjustments to help them work effectively.
Like everyone, we had to quickly find the best accessible video conferencing, and after trial and error, this turned out to be Zoom. Now we alternate our meetings with ‘zoom brews’, sharing our news over a cup of tea. This has brought the team closer together, made us all feel more connected, and given us a great opportunity to share our frustrations.
Just weeks into the coronavirus crisis it was obvious that important public health messages had forgotten people with learning disabilities. Daily briefings were full of jargon, and online information was not an easy read. Come on, it’s not hard – and it always comes back to the same thing: if you get it right for people with learning disabilities, you get it right for everyone.
This came on top of people with learning disabilities telling me they had stopped getting support services, or they were worried that the NHS was taking priority over social care.
Possibly most terrifying were the stories of people with learning disabilities receiving letters about not being treated, or resuscitated, if they had Covid-19 and were in intensive care. It felt as though we had gone back to Victorian times.
Now with ongoing worries about a second wave, we have to learn from this and make sure people with learning disabilities aren’t treated as second-class citizens. I want to see social care treated with much more respect for the support it offers people in the best of times and through the worst of times. I intend to keep shouting about this, and so will my team.
There are also practical things we can do to help people with learning disabilities rebuild the connections they have lost during the pandemic.
At SeeAbility I run weekly drop-in sessions for the people we support, to make sure they feel connected and can voice any concerns. But the majority of people with learning disabilities live in communities with little, if any, social care support. It is a lonely and scary time for many.
For this reason, and thanks to the National Lottery’s Coronavirus Support Fund and The Office for Civil Society, we are about to begin a six-month rapid response project, with Learning Disability England (LDE), to increase support and social connections for those most at risk.
We also want to work alongside people with learning disabilities from BAME backgrounds to understand why Covid-19 has hit different communities in different ways.
One member of my team has really struggled with lockdown, but out of this has come something really positive: they are going to start work with the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities and LDE. They will deliver mental health training to others, who will then pass those messages on about how to look after your mental health during these difficult times.
It seems much of the Covid-19 recovery will lie with new social prescribing plans, meaning GP networks will be able to connect people with activities and groups to improve wellbeing. It is so important that people with learning disabilities don’t miss these opportunities.
Big issues still need addressing for people with learning disabilities and their families, and Covid-19 has shone a light on them. If it leads us to have new conversations and find new ways of improving people’s health and wellbeing, a great thing will have come out of a terrible ordeal.
Scott Watkin is head of engagement at SeeAbility. You can also find him on Twitter: @mrscottwatkin